The compliment I most cherish from a long and varied working life was a rather left-handed as well as left-centred one. I always enjoyed my editorial dealings with the admirable and endearing but occasionally awkward poet George Bruce. I got my reward when, sighing slightly, he once told me: 'You’re the nicest Tory I know'. I sensed a faint relativity in the praise.
That was before Theresa May, back in the prime-time of Blair’s infallibility, warned the fretting and frustrated Tories about the risk of seeming 'the nasty party' and gave a convenient cliché to every lazy leftist columnist.
But I think the Tory Party has always been uneasy about how to seem nice and when to brave the charge of nastiness, a recurring theme in its history which can be illustrated not only by Aneurin Bevan’s notorious claim that we are 'lower than vermin' but by more eloquent assaults from Lloyd George and even, in his unregenerate interlude, Winston Churchill.
What makes the uneasiness most acute today is not just the irony that Mrs May herself has now to set the tone of niceness or apparent nastiness. There are three more serious problems. The first, which still only marginally affects British Conservatism, is a general debasement of the style and language of democratic politics, most evident in the nastiness of the American primary and presidential elections. The second, which affects both Labour and the Tories, is that for the moment the nastiest streaks in our politics – if we discount our local cybernats – are most evident and assertive in policy differences and personal antipathies within parties and not between them. And the last, though a particular British Conservative problem, is best expressed in what American English has almost made a proverb: nice guys are losers.
I met all the Tory leaders from Anthony Eden to John Major, some fleetingly, others close-up and at length. By far the nicest, in public and private, was Alec-Douglas-Home. He was the one with the shortest and least memorable term, the only one of them never to lead the party to an election victory. The next most agreeable was John Major, soon saddled with a fractious party and doomed to the most disastrous defeat of recent times. All the others had a streak of ruthlessness and the outstanding one – no need to name her – could be charming on social occasions but savage on other ones. (I once asked her a question about Enoch Powell at a press conference and felt not merely cut down but chopped up.)
That is why I worry a little about Theresa May, who comes across as a very decent person, politically and personally, even if her political credentials are boosted by Kenneth Clarke’s welcome assurance that she is a 'difficult woman'. The volunteer core of the Conservative Party will be more at ease with her than with David Cameron, able and intelligent but disdainful of many of the conservative attitudes that survive within pragmatic political conservatism and which deserve political expression and representation.
Cameron was a gambler who skilfully and successfully handled the high risks of coalition and the Scottish referendum but staked too much on the equally high-risk European referendum. There will also be some Tories who contrast his defection from the House of Commons with the thrawn but valuable service that Edward Heath put in as a crabbed elder statesman after his leadership came prematurely to an end. In comparison Cameron risks being remembered as a brightly-plumed bird of passage.
The problem for Mrs May is that she inherits problems even greater than those which faced Cameron back in the glad, confident morning of the coalition. Those arising from the ill-prepared aftermath of the referendum that went wrong cannot be adequately addressed until more work is done on defining Britain’s options and until there is some kind of consensus within the ponderous European Union on what relationship it would like with its greatest offshore island. But while that is happening the Conservative Party, relieved though it is to have got such a congenial replacement leader so quickly and relatively painlessly, will creak and then heave with discontents, not all of them over Brexit.
The current stramash over English education could hint at other troubles ahead. What is proposed for England is congenial to most Tories there and changes attitudes and rules which were unduly restrictive or, in relation to 'faith schools', quite vexatious and often absurd. (And I write as someone who would as soon have sent his children to the Marx Memorial Academy as to Saint Molly Malone’s.) Ruth Davidson would do no harm by thinking up something in the same spirit but framed for different Scottish conditions. But the mixed reaction to quite modest proposals shows how readily a section of the Tories – for didn’t Disraeli say that all parties are coalitions? – like to go along with 'progressive' assumptions insufficiently challenged in even the right-wing media but often at odds with conservative instincts. There will be more such occasions to come.
Some of them may be Scottish troubles, though that mainly depends on what Nicola Sturgeon gets up to once she reads the answers to the SNP questionnaires on why so many of us voted No last time and will certainly do so again if put to the test. So far Mrs May seems both robust and tactful enough on Scottish matters and ready to develop an effective relationship with Ruth Davidson, who has contrived to remain nice and become effective in her more limited role. Yet I have a lingering fear that in a time of confusion and frustration over Brexit some back-bench English Tories could be half-hearted about the union. It might seem tempting both to rid themselves of the SNP’s army of occupation on so many Opposition benches and further to reduce the prospect of a Labour government any time soon. David Cameron handled that hazard well, though he yielded too much on referendum timing and conditions, but his successor might need to be much firmer in the still unpredictable conditions of Brexit.
But the obvious test of whether Mrs May can be both 'nice' and authoritative will be encountered in the labyrinths of Brexit preparations, negotiations, and subsequent decisions. There is a dangerous accumulation of combustible or volatile material in the cabinet she assembled and a high prospect of at least one of three major Brexit ministers resigning in a fairly early huff over prime ministerial and cabinet decisions – if he hasn’t become an even earlier Leaver after a row with cabinet rivals. That is not a guess on the likely behaviour of any one partner in the firm of Johnson, Davis, and Fox (formerly Johnson and Gove) but an anxious assessment of political probability as demonstrated in various ages and many countries in similar situations of complex decisions, emotional strain, and full rations of political egocentricity.
I am sure Mrs May has the will and I hope she finds a way. She is being tested at a time when Britain has been weakened not only by the unplanned regime change in the Conservative Party but the confusion of the official opposition, the collapse of the Liberals both politically and intellectually, and the dogged devotion of the SNP to both separatism and opportunism. She got off to a good start but will soon need to overcome the first of many crises as Margaret Thatcher did when Enoch Powell warned that the Falklands would show of what mettle the Iron Lady was made. At least this time the bloodshed will be metaphorical.